Claim: Astronomers create 40% more carbon emissions than the average Australian. Here’s how they can be more environmentally friendly

Shutterstock

Adam Stevens, University of Western Australia and Sabine Bellstedt, University of Western Australia

Astronomers know all too well how precious and unique the environment of our planet is. Yet the size of our carbon footprint might surprise you.

Our study, released today in Nature Astronomy, estimated the field produces 25,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per year in Australia. With fewer than 700 active researchers nationwide (including PhD students), this translates to 37 tonnes per astronomer per year.


Read more: Carbon footprints are hard to understand — here’s what you need to know


As a point of reference, the average Australian adult was responsible for 26 tonnes of emissions in 2019, total. That means the job of being an astronomer is 40% more carbon-intensive than the average Australian’s job and home life combined.

While we often defer to governments for climate policy, our global carbon footprint can be dramatically reduced if every industry promotes strategies to reduce their own footprint. For individual industries to make progress, they must first recognise just how much they contribute to the climate emergency.

Where do all the emissions come from?

We found 60% of astronomy’s carbon footprint comes from supercomputing. Astronomers rely on supercomputers to not only process the many terabytes of data they collect from observatories everyday, but also test their theories of how the Universe formed with simulations.

Antennas and a satellite dish in the foreground, with others in the background, in the WA desert.
Antennas of CSIRO’s ASKAP telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia. CSIRO Science Image

Frequent flying has historically been par for the course for astronomers too, be it for conference attendance or on-site observatory visits all around the world. Prior to COVID-19, six tonnes of annual emissions from flights were attributed to the average astronomer.

An estimated five tonnes of additional emissions per astronomer are produced in powering observatories every year. Astronomical facilities tend to be remote, to escape the bright lights and radio signals from populous areas.

Some, like the Parkes radio telescope and the Anglo-Australian Telescope near Coonabarabran, are connected to the electricity grid, which is predominately powered by fossil fuels.

Others, like the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia, need to be powered by generators on site. Solar panels currently provide around 15% of the energy needs at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, but diesel is still used for the bulk of the energy demands.

Finally, the powering of office spaces accounts for three tonnes of emissions per person per year. This contribution is relatively small, but still non-negligible.

They’re doing it better in Germany

Australia has an embarrassing record of per-capita emissions. At almost four times the global average, Australia ranks in the top three OECD countries for the highest per-capita emissions. The problem at large is Australia’s archaic reliance on fossil fuels.

A study at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany found the emissions of the average astronomer there to be less than half that in Australia.

The difference lies in the amount of renewable energy available in Germany versus Australia. The carbon emissions produced for each kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed at the German institute is less than a third pulled from the grid in Australia, on average. https://www.youtube.com/embed/qHkTaoQvc7A?wmode=transparent&start=0

The challenge astronomers in Australia face in reducing their carbon footprint is the same challenge all Australian residents face. For the country to claim any semblance of environmental sustainability, a swift and decisive transition to renewable energy is needed.

Taking emissions reduction into our own hands

A lack of coordinated action at a national level means organisations, individuals, and professions need to take emissions reduction into their own hands.

For astronomers, private arrangements for supercomputing centres, observatories, and universities to purchase dedicated wind and/or solar energy must be a top priority. Astronomers do not control the organisations that make these decisions, but we are not powerless to effect influence.


Read more: Climate explained: what each of us can do to reduce our carbon footprint


The good news is this is already happening. A recent deal made by Swinburne University to procure 100% renewable energy means the OzSTAR supercomputer is now a “green machine”.

CSIRO expects the increasing fraction of on-site renewables at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory has the potential to save 2,000 tonnes of emissions per year from diesel combustion. And most major universities in Australia have released plans to become carbon-neutral this decade.

As COVID-19 halted travel worldwide, meetings have transitioned to virtual platforms. Virtual conferences have a relatively minute carbon footprint, are cheaper, and have the potential to be more inclusive for those who lack the means to travel. Despite its challenges, COVID-19 has taught us we can dramatically reduce our flying. We must commit this lesson to memory.


Read more: The carbon footprint of tourism revealed (it’s bigger than we thought)


And it’s encouraging to see the global community banding together. Last year, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries signed a scientific paper, warning of a global climate emergency.

As astronomers, we have now identified the significant size of our footprint, and where it comes from. Positive change is possible; the challenge simply needs to be tackled head-on.

Adam Stevens, Research Fellow in Astrophysics, University of Western Australia and Sabine Bellstedt, Research Associate in Astronomy, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

67 thoughts on “Claim: Astronomers create 40% more carbon emissions than the average Australian. Here’s how they can be more environmentally friendly

    • Ah, but don’t forget that we need more CO2, not less to increase our food supply as Sol goes into a Grand Minimum and we cool.

      It’s a win-win. We get to know more about the Universe and also have more CO2 = Plant Food.

  1. Next up.. analysis of how much more “carbon emissions” climate scientists create than the average Australian.

    • “… analysis of how much more “carbon emissions” climate scientists create than the average Australian.”

      Good point!

      It is odd that nobody has done a study of how much “Carbon Emissions” are created when running all of those Climate Models on super computers.

      • Or how many tons of CO2 are produced traveling to all those serious climate science meetings around the world. After all we can’t just ZOOM around, can we?

  2. Who cares how much any person or country, etc. puts out in terms of CO2, if CO2 is not driving changes in climate or temperature?? Fool’s errand.

    • True, but it does serve to highlight the blatant hypocrisy of the “rules for thee but not for me” crowd.

  3. “An estimated five tonnes of additional emissions per astronomer are produced in powering observatories every year.”

    How many people have jobs where the factories/offices are not “powered”?

  4. “Solar panels currently provide around 15% of the energy needs at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory”

    Yea, solar cells don’t work so well at night.

    • Good, radio astronomy is done at any hour since the sun doesn’t affect it much unless you are pointing pretty close to it. So that gives them ~8 hours of operation.

      Personally I just got my eyes back in a front facing position because I eye-rolled so hard at the article. Who cares about CO2 and its footprints. We will actually do better if it gets warmer anyway, and there are no justifications for the positive reinforcement numbers. +3C from the depth of the little ice age is a nothing-burger.

    • I noticed the article praised German astronomers having lower carbon dioxide emissions than Australian because of Germany’s higher use of renewables for electricity generation. But no mention of French astronomers probably having even lower emissions because of France’s electricity generation primarily from nuclear fuel. Mum’s the word on nuclear.

    • Good point…astronomers are critical thinkers, and probably have it figured out that CO2 isn’t the problem it is made out to be , although pollution sure is. But I would imagine they have to keep quiet too, or they won’ have a job studying the stars. Anyways, astronomy is a very important field to the furthering of human knowledge, and is useful ‘carbon’ put to good use to study the heavens. They certainly get a pass from me and many others for their lonely job of figuring out how the universe works. Keep up all the good work, all you astronomers out there, and don’t worry about your ‘carbon’ footprint. Your discoveries may provide new technologies that will add to the collective wealth of information and data about the real world.

  5. Carbon Footprint another misnomer, unless you walk barefoot over hot coals!
    (that’s ignoring the other Allotropes).
    Carbon & Carbon Dioxide seem to be interchanged on MSM as if no one has studied chemistry; we don’t say Hydrogen footprint when we drink water now do we!?
    Actually some Alarmist mentioned Methane Budget as well as Carbon budget recently – so much Non-Science has entered our shared ClimateBanter that Non-Scientists are easily mislead.

  6. The additional carbon dioxide has increased the plant growth so much I have to get a machete and hack my way out of the house every morning.

    • It is getting to be a jungle out there…both literally speaking, and metaphorically. There is no doubt that things are growing much better than 160 years ago. I have pictures of the same sites from the gold rush era, and then 50 years later, then in 1950 and now including pics from all dates in between of basically the same scene. There is no doubt that things are growing more now, like on steroids. Which on balance is a very good thing overall, except when it all dries out and catches fire if it isn’t managed. Maybe a combination of a little warmer, more precipitation, and more CO2. Better than the glaciers advancing.

  7. CSIRO expects the increasing fraction of on-site renewables at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory has the potential to save 2,000 tonnes of emissions per year from diesel combustion.

    It is a pretty empty statement without knowing how much CO2 the production, installation and decommission contribute. – Does such calculations actually exists?

    To me it sounds like when you dig a hole and wants to get rid of the excess dirt, you just dig another hole twice the size for the dirt of both holes.

  8. Are you sure this is not a story about Astrologers? and not Astronomers? There is an inexplicable lack of science in the story, so I’m thinking Astrologers.

    • I remember that! About 1980 annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences, there was a presentation that it would take about 30 years to put enough solar collectors in orbit to replace most of the then-operating electricity power plants. I saw the NASA poster advocating the plan. But 30 years from 1980 is 10 years in the past from now, and still no solar farm in orbit.
      And the oceans are still polluted with salt, despite Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign promise to “de-salt the oceans”, a campaign promise forgotten immediately after the election.

  9. “… they must first recognise just how much they contribute to the climate emergency.”

    That is different from doing carbon accounting. How about demonstrating conclusively (not by consensus opinion), that CO2 is the driving force behind the last 12,000 years of warming? How about even demonstrating that it is anthropogenic CO2 that is driving the measured increase in lower tropospheric CO2?

  10. At least the carbon footprint of the astronomers’ work leads to something scientifically useful.
    It would be interesting to know the “carbon footprint” due to all computer climate modelling, which yields
    mostly unusable GIGO data.

  11. 25,000 tonnes total for the field of astronomy.
    26 tonnes per adult in Australia.
    How many adults (over 15 yrs old) are in Australia? Approximately 20,000,000?
    Total tonnes of the adult population is 520,000,000?
    What percent of that does the field of astronomy represent?
    Does it matter?

    • Good point. What’s more is if those 700 astronomers gave up astronomy and took an average job instead only 40% of that already minuscule 25,000 tonnes would be saved. If you believe that CO2 emissions should be curtailed, China, which emits over 10.0 GT per year, 25 times more than all of Australia, should be a primary focus of efforts. Eliminating ALL fossil fuel consumption in Australia without addressing China would hardly make a dent. The author is clueless – he’s tilting at windmills.

  12. The facilities in Oz produce data used by 1000s maybe 10,000s of astronomers, physicists, and others worldwide. Not fair to lay all the emissions on 700 or so locals!

  13. I applaud astronomers for contributing more of the precious, life-giving, beneficial, trace gas CO2 to the atmosphere than average citizens. The rest of us must try harder, emulating their example.

  14. I notice that news reporting of AGW typically expresses CO2 emissions in multiple tonnes. That makes it sound like a lot. When I discuss CO2 with someone I start with the 414 ppm measurement, pointing out that that is 0.04% of the atmosphere, or to view it from another perspective, that 99.96% of the atmosphere is not CO2. I ask the person to consider whether he/she really believes a slight increase from .04% could conceivably result in our extinction.

  15. Could you ask Christopher Monckton of Brenchley why only non-condensing greenhouse gasses are considered? Isn’t the only thing that is important is the integration of the effects of each component? After all shouldn’t a gas prevalent at 50 times (average) CO2 be significant when its effects are integrated even if local variation are from 10 to 100 times CO2 concentration?

    This seems like a rather large elephant in a very small room.

    Maybe Willis would prefer to address it.

    • Focusing on non-condensing greenhouse gases is a convenient way for the CAGW alarmists to sweep water vapor, by far the greatest greenhouse gas, aside so as to focus alarm on CO2.

      BTW, mankind has most probably increased average global humidity over the last 200 years by dint of combustion of hydrocarbon-bearing fossil fuels and wood, dam building, crop irrigation, use of steam in industry, and use of evaporative cooling in industry . . . at least at the hundreds of ppm average global level. Increasing global average tropospheric temperature (from whatever cause) serves to facilitate increasing global humidity.

      But I eagerly look forward to response(s) from Lord Monckton and/or Willis on this topic.

    • Don’t forget that at top of troposphere, only 12km up, H2O concentration is below 10 ppm having precipitated out, and CO2 is still 400 ppm, 40 times higher. This means more CO2 radiates more IR to outer space at that altitude, COOLING the upper troposphere, seemingly the opposite of what most people expect based on their weak unscientific understanding. To get a feeling for the total effect of this variation from ground level to TOA one must use a program like Modtran, and realize that they have parameterized things like cloud cover in their radiative model.

      • But for the fact that 12 km from the surface is essentially beyond the EM radiation penetration depths of upwelling LWIR at the spectral frequencies at which CO2 absorbs and emits photons.

        Since the molecular collision frequency of CO2 molecules in the lower troposphere is in the range of 10^10 to 10^8 per second, versus CO2 relaxation-by-photon-emission times that are three to six orders of magnitude slower, most of the energy of upwelling LWIR photons absorbed by CO2 is “thermalized” into the translational, vibrational and rotational energy degrees of freedom of the other molecules comprising the bulk of the atmosphere, raising their average temperature slightly.

        The same process occurs for water vapor for upwelling LWIR that it absorbs in its specific absorption bands, although the associated EM radiation penetration depths are much shorter due to the much higher atmospheric concentration of water vapor molecules compared to CO2 (typically, 10-60 times higher depending on the air’s relative humidity) and the much broader LWIR absorption bands of H20 compared to CO2.

        In fact, Kiehl and Trenberth’s diagram of the balances of Earth’s energy flows (actually, W/m^2 fluxes) shows that only 10% of the total LWIR leaving Earth’s surface (“upwelling” radiation) passes directly to space through the “atmospheric window”.

        It is the thermal radiation from ALL of the gases present at the top of the troposphere, and specifically not just CO2, that eventually transfers 90% of Earth’s upwelling (i.e., surface) radiation energy to space. Thus, it is much more correct to say that ALL atmospheric gases at the top of the troposphere radiate thermal energy to cool that region.

        I may be wrong, but I do not believe that Modtran takes into account thermalization of absorbed radiation with other gases along the specified optical path length, but I understand that it can calculate EM radiation penetration depth in a given mixture of gases. I am not a Modtran user.

  16. What about the tens of thousands of amateur astronomers in the United States? Members of my club drive anywhere from 40-80 miles one way to reach our hill top observatory. Others drive 100’s of miles to attend major star party’s like the Texas Star Party. All astronomy needs to be banned immediately. We need telescope control. They’re more dangerous than guns.

    • Don’t say that too loud, it could actually catch on as a policy goal among the ruling (drooling?) classes these days.

      Also, don’t forget the danger that any ham radio people bouncing pulses off the moon could destroy the moon as well..

      • The real problem is that the pressure from those radio waves could push the moon out of orbit and send it spiraling out into the galaxy. They might even make a series out of it.

  17. During human respiration, the concentration of CO2 exhaled is 4% to 5% by volume, or at least a factor of 100 higher than the CO2 concentration inhaled (around 400 ppmv, or .04%).

    Now, multiply the average number of breaths you take per minute (resting or working/exercising), time 60 minutes per hour, time 24 hours per day, times 365.25 days per year, times your current age . . . by golly, you are really emitting a LOT of CO2 over the years.

    Thus, it would be might be appropriate to also refer to the “carbon mouthprint” of each person.

    To all those calling for drastic reductions in human emissions of CO2, hold your breath.

  18. There is a simple answer to all of this. We need more astronomers, and plenty of ’em, to spread the load. These ‘extra’ astronomers will be different than the current mob. They will be parked up doing observations of reality. You know, gathering empirical evidence! (sarc off)

  19. There are about 10000 scientists and technicians in astronomy world-wide. I used to be one of them. The membership of the International Astronomical Union over the years has always been near the 0.0001% level of total humanity, never significantly more. That means that some unknown sociological mechanism limits the number of people working in this field, probably by setting the amount of resources allocated for such a pure science. For biological sciences the numbers are 100 times more.

    I once put it to my wife that she had married a one in a million man, but, alas, she wouldn’t buy it. So why should having a 40% carbon footprint than the next guy mean anything at all?

  20. Yeah… we don’t actually use supercomputers to analyze 99.9% of our data.

    80% of it is discarded off the top, another 15% is processed on a laptop.

    Warmists waste more carbon creating fake articles and from adding the word “science” to the word “climate” to try to claim the 1921 apocalypse is real.

    Think about that: what is the global impact of insisting on putting the word “science” on something that isn’t scientific at all? Bet you it’s a shitload more than the global cost of astronomy and astrophysics.

  21. It would be interesting to calculate the amount of CO2 emitted by wildfires in AU this year. I suspect it is 5x all human emissions combined, especially if post-fire decay is included.

    Added note: that doesn’t mean I oppose defunding astronomy. I support defunding all taxpayer-supported pseudo science and all the universities regardless of subject matter. If students want an education, let them pay for it and hire the professors they desire.

  22. Will someone not as lazy as I please do a ‘carbon footprint’ analysis of Hollywood? Add up all the emissions incurred in Hollywood producing movies, traveling to on site locations, by people flying/driving to produce it, emissions generated by making the movie itself (plus the emissions in the manufacture of all the vehicles and other property destroyed in the movie), and the movie sets, the distribution of the films, and their promotions. Then add all the emissions generated by people to view the movies, power used by the theater, etc., down to the last absurd detail.

    The headline I would love to see is: “Hollywood Responsible for the Production of X Tons of Carbon Dioxide Each Year.” Sub-headline: “More than the average footprint of x0,000 average people. Is it worth the destruction of our climate?“

    Maybe if we turn the spotlight on the loudest groups, using their own rhetoric, it will be easier to convert them into skeptics.

  23. “Australia has an embarrassing record of per-capita emissions. At almost four times the global average, Australia ranks in the top three OECD countries for the highest per-capita emissions. The problem at large is Australia’s archaic reliance on fossil fuels”

    May I suggest that the “problem” is caused by the way in which a nations “emissions” are allocated?

    From what I have read, if a country like Australia exports a million tons of coal or gas or oil, to (say) India then the CO2 that is produced when that million tons is burned is attributed not to importer/user but to the country that EXPORTED the energy. So countries like Saudi and Australia are excoriated as huge polluters, even though thy have actually burned little of their produce for their own energy needs.

    If the basis of the “carbon accounting”were changed to allocate the CO2 to the USER not to the SUPPLIER then Australia (and its astronomers) would look much cleaner.

    If my understanding is correct, once the gas pipeline from Russia to Germany is opened, Russia will be classed as a much “worse” polluter, even if it has not burned a single joule of the gas. Similarly, Germany will gain a huge “public relations advantage” in that it cab burn all this gas and not have the CO2 attributed to it. So all of its astronomers will miraculously have become more clean without having done anything.

    ps If you think I have to wrong understand of CO2 accounting please correct me, and call me an old fool!

  24. IF CO2 is causing atmospheric warming then all ground based optical devices would need constant adjustment. And AFAIK that isn’t happening.

Comments are closed.